The Black woman student experience: Black identity, activism, and fashion on the college campus
Historically, Black people have, along with other forms of resistance, used aspects of dress and their appearance to defy and reject racism, oppression, and discrimination (Baxter & Marina, 2008; Ford, 2015). Black women specifically have used dress and appearance as a form of resistance to oppression and as a means for expressing their Black identity (Ford, 2015; Miller, 2016; O'Neal, 1998). To build on past work, in this thesis I examine how Black women use dress and appearance as an embodied practice and as a way to negotiate both their Black and activist identities. I focus on a particular space and time: campus life at predominantly white institutions during the Black Lives Matter movement era from 2013 to 2019. Examining Black college women's experiences on predominately white college campuses is of importance because of the historical connection between United States colleges and Black empowerment as numerous Black activist movements started either at predominately white institutions or by college-aged people (Cohen, 2018; Morgan & Davies, 2012). Understanding these experiences will add to our knowledge of how Black women continue to resist oppression and express their Black identity through dress, adding to the much-needed modern-day history of Black people. Additionally, examining Black women's experiences in research recognizes their stories as important through counterstorytelling (Bell, 1992; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017), allowing Black women to write their own history in their own voices.
To achieve my purpose, I conducted in-depth interviews with photo and garment elicitation components with 15 Black women college students between the ages of 18-28 who are currently attending predominately white institutions in Iowa. Critical race theory informed my data collection and analysis processes (Bell, 1992; Delgado & Stefancic, 2017). After analysis of the data, I found that the Black women participants had significant, identity-affirming experiences at predominately white institutions in Iowa, and these experiences informed their dress and appearance practices in relation to expressions of Black and activist identities. Across the interviews, three larger themes were identified in relation to expressions of Black and activist identities: (1) experiences on campus, (2) Black identity through dress and appearance, and (3) activist identity through dress and appearance. Numerous subthemes were also identified within the larger themes. Participant quotes and images were utilized to support the themes. Much of the findings of my research were supported by past literature, including reports of Black student experiences at predominately white institutions (Chen & Hamilton, 2015; Eakins & Eakins, 2017), individual's identities continually evolving and becoming (Kaiser, 2012), and the historical significance of Black and activist styles being used by Black people to express their identities (Ford, 2015; Lewis, 2003; O'Neal, 1998; Robinson, 2008). Affirming past research, as well as adding to the literature, this research provides insight on how Black women continue to use dress to empower themselves while facing racism and discrimination on the college campus, as well as information to apparel brands that might target these consumers allowing them to express their many identities through products available on the market.
After an analysis of the themes, I propose the following substantive theory, or a theory that is transferable to additional studies that have similar context to this study, to further explain the results (Glaser & Strauss, 1967); Black women college students have both positive and negative experiences on campus while attending predominately white institutions, which ultimately informs their everyday dress and appearance practices related to subtle and overt expressions of Black and activist identity.